Empire abroad is a threat to your liberty at home.
The fundamental characteristics of a growing empire undermine the very foundation of the constitutional system. Empire leads to foreign influence, massive standing armies, higher taxes, and more power centralized in the hands of a few.
And that means a loss of liberty.
George Washington warned us about “the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” in his farewell address. He said, “History and experience prove, that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government.”
Washington advised taking an impartial approach to foreign affairs. He said excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another would cause us to only see danger on one side and veil or even cause us to go along with “the arts of influence” of the other.
Washington advised a neutral stance when it comes to foreign countries.
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
We failed to follow Washington’s advice and the U.S. now entangles itself in foreign affairs and wars all over the world. In fact, the U.S. has evolved into a global empire with its fingerprints on every corner of the globe. The U.S. government uses a combination of economic power and military force to impose its will on the world.
That’s what an empire does.
The problem is that maintaining an empire exacts tremendous costs in blood, treasure, and moral capital. Eventually, the costs become too much to bear and the empire collapses.
In a letter to Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin warned about what happens when countries pursue empire.
“Empires, by Pride & Folly & Extravagance, ruin themselves like Individuals.”
In his seventh Fabius letter, John Dickinson sounded a similar warning, writing about “the thirst of empire.”
“This is a vice, that ever has been, and from the nature of things, ever must be, fatal to republican forms of government.”
As the states were considering ratification of the Constitution, Patrick Henry worried that “consolidation” would lead to empire.
By consolidation, Henry meant the centralization of power in a monolithic national government. He warned, “Consolidation must end in the destruction of our liberties.”
In a speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 5, 1778, Henry hammered this point home. His primary fear was that the states would transition from a decentralized, voluntary confederation into a consolidated empire as the result of expanding federal power, a permanent standing army, and a strong executive branch.
He warned that consolidation would sow the seeds of empire and that would ultimately undermine a republican form of government.
“If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together. Such a government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism.There will be no checks, no real balances, in this government.” [Emphasis added]
Henry perceptively connected consolidation, empire, and large standing armies. He understood that military force would be necessary to maintain an empire. Conversely, a large standing army would incentivize empire-building.
“If we admit this consolidated government, it will be because we like a great, splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things.”
Henry warned that standing armies not only encourage and maintain empire abroad, they facilitate tyranny at home.
“A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace—bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment? In what situation are we to be?” [Emphasis added]
Ultimately, an empire must engage in perpetual warfare to maintain its position of power and keep opposing forces in check. The U.S. is no exception. The country has only been at peace for 17 years since 1776.
James Madison gave us perhaps the most comprehensive warning about what would happen if the U.S. perpetually engaged in war. He wrote, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
In the first place, “War is the parent of armies.” This is exactly what Patrick Henry warned about. He and Madison both understood that large standing armies undercut individual liberty. As Madison put it, “From these proceed debts and taxes.”
“And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. “
Second, perpetual war consolidates power into the hands of the executive branch.
“In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.”
Too much power in a single person’s hands always threatens liberty. George Mason summed it up.
“I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people.”
Finally, Madison leaves us with a poignant warning.
“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
The quest for empire abroad empowers government, and an empowered government always threatens liberty at home. The founders and old revolutionaries understood this and they warned us. But we have failed to heed their warnings. As a result, we are paying a high price in treasure, blood, and freedom.
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